Andrew’s assessment that Thomas was reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles, was, of course, correct. Not only was he reading Tess; he was seeing Tess. She was everywhere, in every woman he encountered. Being half-way through the novel, the tragic details of her story had not completely, nor fully, set in. Nor had Thomas been blindsided by the shell-shocking realities of that second half that might make him not want to see Tess everywhere for fear of losing all hope in humanity, if not his own sanity. He was still caught up on the idyllic and often intoxicating vistas that Hardy painted of the rural lands of his mythical county Wessex. Thomas’s romantic notions were in full arousal. He was seeing rural England in any expanse of green, every budding tree, every darting bird, and every young woman that his imagination could transport to Victorian England and fashion into a simple milkmaid. Thomas had never been so captivated by a character; and as a single young man who hoped to meet a woman of flesh and blood and fall in love, he now hoped she would approximate the angelic, elusive, trusting, Tess, who also seemed blessed with sage-like wisdom and the noble nature suitable for a pastor’s wife. No woman could be all these things in such an intoxicating and combustive mixture as Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield possessed. No creature could persist long in this world in such a state, which is perhaps one of the many points Hardy was so boldly making. And yet there was Tess, so cruelly used and still so divinely shining—at the half-way point of the novel.
She also colored every dreamy assessment he made of his own life. Having resettled in the American midlands, Thomas now understood his own arrival in the pastoral landscapes of the upper Midwest as though he were visitor to Tess’s domain. And every conversation with a girl in his classes, or the girl at the check-out counter, took on Tessian hues: earthy tones of green, blue, tawny, and brown. In the early mornings on the way to class, Tess accompanied him, remarking kindly upon the events of the day, putting a kind construct upon the words and actions of others (Luther would have been pleased here). Tess seemed, at every moment, to be the girl he was about to meet. In the same way that the male protagonist, Angel Clare, had arrived providentially as a student farmer at the same dairy where Tess had herself taken refuge from her past; with every turning of the page, Thomas, himself a visiting student, became akin to Angel, hoping for Tess’s affections to grow. He was surprised to read that Angel was the son of a minister. Further taking this character to heart, he hurt with every modest denial she gave to Angel, and he took offense when Angel did not respond appropriately to gain her trust. All of this was just a prelude to the novel’s tragic second act. But not having arrived there, Thomas lived in the joyful and expectant moments before the crucial moment, before the undoing—before the intersection of the cross.
One Thursday afternoon in early April, Thomas decided to read at The Hatch. Spring weather had arrived suddenly and surprisingly. Rivers of meltwater carried down the streets and into gaping sewers that drank like parched mouths. The changing weather also brought weeks of clouds and windier conditions. The bare deciduous trees rhythmically bent and relaxed, bowing back and forth in the breeze. The evergreens registered the wind as waves of movement through their bushy branches. Inside the restaurant, Thomas turned pages into the back half of the novel; a season changing for him there as well. The crushing events of Tess’s wedding day played out before his unbelieving eyes. He broke from reading for a few moments, unable to go on. It all registered so deeply, taking him back to a relationship he had a few years back, a disappointment and an ending that he continued to regret, the story of a simple girl that he had met less than a year before going to the States for school. Many times, he had stuffed that memory back down, justifying the events, or blaming them on youthful immaturity and the pressure of somehow hanging on to home. But the story of Tess dragged these personal events back to his conscious mind, surprising him with details he had forgotten. The worst part had been that, at one point, marriage had been discussed. There had been efforts to secure a way in which the young woman could follow Thomas to Minnesota, even a place for her to work and live. Thomas remembered when the employment he had found for her turned out to be a workhouse for young women with lower mental capacity, and the potential apartment he found, proved to a subsidized unit in a building with active elements of crime. The relationship fell apart soon after that.
But there were more unfortunate events that had precipitated the breakup. Thomas, feeling trapped by the commitment he felt himself to be making, began to pry into the girl’s past, looking to justify a way out. He had contacted one of her friends to ask some silly question that got blown out of proportion. Of course, the young woman had been informed by her friend, and when she confronted Thomas with his indiscretion, she had also told him she would not be joining him in Minnesota.
For a few moments Thomas relived the aftermath of those events, feeling the despairing features of his own story deeply and personally once again. Especially vivid was the day the relationship was severed. He turned his head to the window next to him and watched the heavy clouds moving overhead. Superimposed over the scene outside the window was the faint reflection of the inside of the restaurant, including his own face cast outward into the street. As the light of the afternoon failed, this reflected inner scene would become increasingly dominant until it remained the only thing visible in the window. Thomas saw the irony of the inside exposed and projected. Hardy’s masterful writing had served just like this, as a pane of glass in the failing light, doing the same thing in the emotional dimension, surprising him with that inner reflection cast outward. His relationship with the girl back home had been Thomas’ last romantic relationship. Since then, he had struggled to see his life move forward in this respect.
“Are you done with that?”
A familiar voice called him back to the place in which he sat. Thomas looked up and saw that it was the quadrad’s regular server, Terri. Her evening shift must have just started.
Thomas blinked, bringing his focus back to the present. Terri was smiling at him, shyly picking her fingernails with her pen. “Are you done with that?” she repeated, cocking her head to one side.
“Um, yes, sorry. I’ll take a Diet Coke, with a little lime, if that is okay?”
“Sure,” she smiled. “So where are the guys? It’s not Monday, you know.”
“I came by myself to read. I just needed a different place to be,” he said, not wanting to reveal too much, not sure at all how much Terri would appreciate.
“It’s quieter when it’s just you,” Terri observed as she went to fulfill his order. Thomas was disarmed by her observation, the nature of it, delivered in a way that did not make it a criticism. Did she mean it as a compliment? He watched her walk away, appreciating for the first time the bounce in her curly bobbed hair that just touched the nape of her neck. It reminded him of an Irish step-dancer he had seen perform one summer back home. He had never really looked at Terri before, outside of the few minutes when she ran his credit card, she had remained almost invisible to him. There was a softness, even a familiarity to the way she expressed herself, a vulnerability that Thomas had never appreciated before, but also an allusive innocence.
He kept watching as she went to behind the counter and filled a cup with ice and then poured the soda, placing two limes on top with her elegant fingers. She seemed aware of his gaze but did not acknowledge it. When she turned around, she immediately met his eyes with no alarm.
She returned with his drink, cocking her head again, her lips parted slightly. “Will that be all, Tom?”
“For now, I guess.” He smiled shyly.
She turned to leave, but then abruptly spun on her heels. “I was meaning to ask you, one of you at least… Do you all go to that school up the hill? The one where people study theology?”
“We do. You can call me Thomas.”
“I meant no offense.”
“No, it’s the opposite for me. It’s what I prefer people who know me to call me.”
“But I don’t really know you,” she said.
“I’ve known you for at least six months right, every Monday night?” Thomas suddenly felt on the defensive, but strangely again, not attacked.
“You don’t know me,” she said. “Anyhow, about the school… my father went there, so did my great uncle.”
Thomas blinked. His mind spun as he took in this sudden revelation. “Your dad? Really? When?”
“Oh, back in the sixties, I think.”
“He’s a pastor?”
Terri did not answer this, but said instead, “It’s kinda funny I ended up working so close to his old school.”
Thomas sat back, stunned.
“You don’t believe me,” she remarked.
“You’ve never said anything about it before.”
Terri paused for a moment. “I wasn’t sure how to bring it up. I guess I was waiting for the right time. I really don’t know much about it.”
Thomas was suddenly seeing Terri in a totally different light. Her eyes were inviting, warm, expressive, communicating an intelligence that was not academic, and, yet, not at all beneath that. He realized he had assumed Terri did not go beyond high school. Was he wrong? Her dignity betrayed something more than just the average “college-was-not-in-the-cards” storyline. All this time he had seen her just as a waitress, either his own age or maybe a bit older. Terri, a pastor’s daughter? If they had met somewhere else, if she had not worked at a bar, would he have noticed her sooner? For months she had listened to bits and pieces, tail-ends of the conversations of second-year seminarians, why had she had never ventured to comment on more than just the special of the week? Thomas wondered.
Thomas’ words stumbled out: “Wow, I mean, that’s amazing. Not amazing, I guess, but you know, you get inside a certain bubble, and you just don’t realize… I don’t know what I’m saying.”
“Oh, I know what you’re saying,” she said, smiling carefully.
Thomas felt suddenly self-conscious. But then, looking up, he saw those eyes again. Soft and open. Trusting, even. Thomas wanted to investigate them as long as he could, to look the reverse way through the lens, to see himself through Terri’s eyes.
“I have so many questions,” Thomas said, again tongue-tied. “Do you want to sit down? Can I ask you—”
“No,” she said quickly, but she continued to smile. “I’ve got to keep busy, and…. you’ve got reading to do,” she chuckled. “I’ll bring you your bill, sir.”
Sir? Thomas was transfixed as she walked away. When she brought the bill, she was suddenly “all business”, again. As he signed the credit card slip, Thomas also worked up the nerve to write his phone number below his signature and wrote: “I’m so glad you told me.” Terri never returned so he just left it there on the table. He walked home alone, feeling like the man in the parable who had discovered the hidden treasure in a field.
A week past. Thomas did not join the guys at The Hatch the next Monday night. Having been on a retreat that weekend with energetic junior highers, he needed rest. But by Tuesday, he was ready to socialize again. Having not seen Mike at lunch that day, he walked down the hall to his dorm room to see what was up. He had not yet decided if he was going to share what Terri had told him the previous week.
Terri never called or texted, but he knew that meant nothing. She may not have even seen his number when running the payment through. Over the retreat weekend, when he did not have responsibilities with the young people, he had taken to daydreaming about how his next meeting with Terri might go. He found her attractive, but not in the way it normally registered with him. Her beauty was unique and disarming rather than the ‘right in your face’ gorgeousness of Freya from Norway. Freya could handily win a beauty contest; certainly, she could win the crown of ‘Buttermilk Princess’ in any Midwest county fair. He had seen that year’s Buttermilk Princess advertised on a billboard in Wisconsin while riding the church bus on their way back to Minneapolis after the retreat.
The retreat had featured a speaker who presented on the topic of purity, asking the students to make a commitment to choose chastity until they were married. This had become a popular theme at many youth retreats in recent years. Thomas understood the reasons behind it: sexual activity was starting younger and younger. At this point it was likely some of his junior high kids were more experienced than Thomas was himself. The thought embarrassed him. Sometimes it made his own choices in this area seem silly or juvenile, even repressive. But did he prefer the opposite? for the kids he was mentoring to have no boundaries, no challenge to retain their innocence, so that one day they could present their innocence as a gift to their future spouse. That is how the speaker had talked about it—again that theme of self-sacrifice, of delayed gratification which Thomas knew was also a mark of integrity. He was making that choice himself. But it was the way it was presented, as a do or die thing. Was that responsible? Was it the best way to do it? Did it set up the kids for a failure from which they struggle to come back. In the end would they just throw their faith away like proverbial the baby in the bathwater if they failed in what was presented as such a foundational moral. On the way home Thomas had watched the faces of the students, many of them retained the features of childhood, especially the sixth graders. They were just children. None of them were remotely ready for the kind of intimacy the speaker had been talking about so openly, but they lived in a world that pushed all these things and more. The last night of the retreat many of the students had gone forward to sign a commitment card to follow God’s plan for intimate relationships. Thomas had felt reassured they were doing the right thing by addressing it. But still, how did Christian faith become so focused on sex?
For the remainder of the bus ride Thomas had done a lot of thinking about that question. The more he did, the more Freya kept coming to mind. Repeatedly, he forced her image away, knowing too that Paul was making a play for her. Terri was occupying more and more of his imagination, anyway. She was not a Nordic angel, but there was an alluring nature to her that had been strangely obscured until their conversation the previous week.
Having reached Mike’s dorm room, he knocked on the door. There was no answer at first, but it was unlatched, and the pressure of his knock opened it a crack. As it swung on its hinge, Thomas could see Mike sitting in his chair, noticeably slumping. At first, he thought he was sleeping, but Mike shifted and looked up at where Thomas was peering in. He was sitting in his underwear with the heat in the room turned up to accommodate his partial nakedness. Mike was unshaven and there was a small plate of Ritz crackers balanced on the arm of his recliner and a can of Easy Cheese tucked next to his leg.
“What’s up, dude?” asked Mike in a noticeably depressed voice.
“Nothing. I did not see you at lunch, so I wanted to peek in.” Thomas had intended upon asking for an update about Beth, but he resisted the impulse to ask now seeing Mike’s demeanor. Of course, it could be anything that was depressing him, maybe he had gotten his paper back from Nettleman and was not happy with the grade. Thomas started there: “Hey, did you get your book report back?”
“Yeah, I did,” said Mike, still uninterested and mildly irritated at Thomas’ intrusion. “I got a B. I think I deserved more given how it was longer than the requirement, by a good bit.”
“Did he give a reason?”
“He liked it, but he did not agree with my conclusion.”
“Wow, I’m surprised. I assumed that something you did for extra credit was sort of a cakewalk,” mused Thomas. “I’ll have to pay more attention when I write mine. What didn’t he like?”
“So you know how we are supposed to identify a Christ-figure or recognize the message of the cross is some way? Well, Nettleman did not like the way I saw the cross in the male protagonist’s patience with Bathsheba, the heroine. He said that if anyone was the Christ-figure in the story, it was the shepherd’s foil, William Boldwood, whom Bathsheba rejected. Nettleman thinks he is like the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53. Boldwood is sentenced to death near the end, so it fits; but I thought that the shepherd’s persistent forgiving, attentive, friendship was also a version of the cross, maybe a more compelling one, one that is continually carried and never put down. He did agree that Bathsheba represents all humanity, courted by Christ.”
“I don’t know the book, so I don’t know.”
“Well, it’s all about how you see Christ, right? Persistent friend, personal, or more distant and clinical in his self-sacrifice. To me the shepherd was much more the sacrificial lamb. Anyhow, I’ll live with a ‘B’.”
“Okay. Sorry, man.”
“No worries; it’s life,” replied Mike.
“You all right in here?”
“Oh, yeah, I’ve got all I need.”
“Easy Cheeze, you mean?”
“I can get more.”
“Any more news about your Bathsheba?”
“Don’t ask right now, okay?”
Thomas nodded and turned to step back out into the hallway. As he did, he found himself face to face with Mike’s mirror. Thomas’ eyes surveyed its length and his gaze settled on the bottom portion of the mirror. Scribbled in red erasable marker was a message barely visible at first glance. Below where one might see the reflection of their face, it read: “Utterly deplorable.”
Thomas stopped for a moment and looked back at Mike, “What does that mean?”
“Nothing, a message to myself.”
Thomas did not know what to say. He closed the door and then opened it back up again slightly to see Mike absorbed in his reading, his lap covered with cracker crumbs. He closed the door and went back to his room.
After dinner when Mike did not show again, he returned to Mike’s room to check on him. Repeated knocks brough no response. He only got Mike’s voice mail when he called his phone.
Later that night, Thomas received a text. It was from an unknown number, but the message seemed clear enough to establish the identity of the sender: “You’re sweet.” He ran through his mind all the potential senders of such a text. It had to be Terri, thought Thomas. There was no one else he could think of. He closed his flip phone without making a response, wanting to savor the moment.
Later that week, the guys decided to gather down at The Hatch. As it was a Thursday night, the place was packed with college kids for a retro music night. The theme that week was 80s Alternative. Overly synthesized but catchy tunes filled the air, many of them tantalizingly danceable. As they entered, A-Ha’s Take on Me was in full swing. A dozen tables of college students were giving the heartache lyrics a full-throated rendition. One boy and girl were doing their best to reenact scenes from the classic video.
“You know there is a New Wave song for every conceivable scenario,” said Andrew playfully as they sat down.
“I bet there is,” said Thomas. “You can make those lyrics mean anything you want.”
“Try me,” said Andrew. “If you stump me, I’ll buy your food tonight.”
“You mean ‘Take me on….’?” Asked Thomas with a laugh and parroting the tune.
“Okay, you just proved my thesis. And… we’re on!”
Thomas considered and presented his first scenario challenge: “Okay, so you are a teenage rebel in the English Midlands. You just want to ride your motorbike all over Tyneside, but your mom won’t give you gas money.”
“Are you serious!” asked Andrew.
“That’s literally all you got?” snapped Andrew playfully.
“Okay, what’s the song that fits it?”
“Life in a Northern Town, by the Dream Academy, obviously!” proclaimed Andrew.
“Okay, alright, I see how this goes. Give me a minute.”
The waitress came to the table. It was not Terri, but Thomas was not surprised. She did not work Thursdays. “Hi guys, I’m Amber, what are you having tonight? By the way, there is no special on Grain Belt tonight. But there are half-price margaritas.”
“Definitely not, thank you,” said pretty much everyone.
“I didn’t think so.”
“We will take nachos to start, right guys?” Paul suggested.
Everyone nodded and proceeded to put in their drink orders. When she left, Thomas issued another song challenge. “Okay, you are a high school senior and you realize that most everyone in your class has betrayed you in some way. You are going to the last school dance and the girl you like is going with your best friend. When you get to your locker it’s been broken into and all your stuff is stolen.”
“Easy…. Again! Look Back in Anger, by David Bowie.”
“Not really New Wave, is he?”
“Oh, we’re going to play like that, huh? You won’t accept Post Punk?”
“Nope, distinct genre.”
“Debatable, but no problem. Here we go… it’s coming to me... Okay, Ultravox, Dancing with Tears in My Eyes.”
That reference brought cheers to the whole table, as well as a rendition of the tragic chorus in Andrew’s clear tenor.
“I love this game!” he said triumphantly, pumping the air over his head with both fists. “Now, give me one more before we take a break.”
“Really, a break already? Maybe your well is not so deep, eh?” retorted Thomas, signaling Canadian.
“Well, I happen to know that Mike has some news. So, ‘fire away’… Oh, and that’s Pat Benatar and not what we are looking for.”
“Touché,” said Thomas. “Alright, last one before Mike’s news. Your parents force you to get a summer job... and the only thing you can find is to deliver the farm auction newsletter to country diners in out-state Minnesota. There is nothing really to do or see…”
“Okay, stop right there. I’ve got it already: Hideous Towns, The Sundays.”
“Alright, I give up. I’ll buy my food,” said Thomas. Andrew had racked up yet another win. He turned cautiously to Mike who did not seem as depressed as Thomas had seen him earlier in the week. “Whatcha got, Mikey?”
“Well, I guess you guys all remember my second trip to Beth’s farm,” Mike paused. “It did not go so well, obviously.”
The rest of the quadrad shrugged in agreement.
“Didn’t think I’d ever hear from her again, but this morning I checked my mail at the Student Center and there was this letter—well, a postcard from Beth. I guess she has her own printed postcards now from her ranch, or whatever it is going to be. Here it is.” Mike retrieved the postcard from his pocket and spun it into the center of the table, making it fair game for anyone. Andrew was quick to reach, but Paul snagged it first. He sat back and took his time, inspecting it fully.
“What’s with the examination, Dr. Johnson?” asked Andrew.
“I’m just lookin’. With women it’s never just what they say… Okay on the back she writes: ‘You were nice to come, Beth’. Big scrawling handwriting. That means she did not have much to say, but she did not want to make it look that way. She took up the whole back of it just writing that, you see?” Paul showed his hand to the table. “Nice handwriting, though. And yes, on the front in big letters Everhard Downs.”
“Everhart. It’s Everhart, you lame-o,” corrected Mike.
“My mistake,” giggled Paul.
“Okay, what if I call you ‘Ever-hard Up’?” Mike upped the ante.
“Oh, low blow, Mike,” smiled Paul.
“Everhart… Is that her last name?” Andrew asked with a quizzical look.
“Yes, I know. You don’t need to say it, it’s almost Everdene from the book…. I guess it was Beth’s married name.”
“Okay, am I losing it here or is it just me?” asked Andrew. “Are you living Hardy’s plot?”
“Well, we are the only two who have read Madding Crowd, so no one else is going to get it, Andrew,” said Mike flatly.
“But she sent you a note too, just like Bathsheba. So, are you the shepherd, or are you Boldwood?”
“I’d rather be the shepherd than him, thank you very much!”
“I just—I just can’t. I don’t know. This is too weird,” said Andrew, flabbergasted.
“So, what are you going to do?” asked Thomas.
“Beats me. I’ll give it a few days. Maybe call her. I don’t know. I really, don’t,” he said, chopping at the table.
The food arrived, and talk ceased for a long while. All around them the 80s alternative continued to play. Mike and Andrew both considered alternative universes where fictional love stories played out in the real, with ever-increasing interplays and connections. Paul chomped on his hamburger and drank his beer mindlessly, vaguely watching a table of college girls who had just sat down. Thomas picked at his food and wondered if this was the time to tell the group about his conversation with Terri. He chose not to do so, not wanting to steal any of Mike’s thunder. He also did not have that much to say—so much hinged on the next text.
Back in his dorm room before bed, Thomas took out his phone and finally responded to the mysterious text. “Thanks Terri,” he typed.
To his surprise, within moments came a reply: “Who’s Terri? It’s Freya, silly!”